Use Logical Fallacies To Win Arguments

This scene from the movie ‘Thank You For Smoking is where, years ago, I first came across logical fallacies: it was love at first sight.

Since then, I did my best to:

  • avoid them in my arguments;

  • spot them in other people’s arguments;

  • exploit them for winning arguments against annoying people.

The movie scene that initiated me is a great example of how to win an argument:

Joey: So what happens when you’re wrong?

Nick: Whoa, Joey I’m never wrong.

J: But you can’t always be right...

N: Well, if it's your job to be right, then you're never wrong.

J: But what if you are wrong?

N: Ok, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate, and I’m defending vanilla. Now if I were to say to you: “Vanilla is the best flavour ice-cream”, you’d say...

J: No, chocolate is.

N: Exactly, but you can’t win that, I’ll ask you: “so you think chocolate is the end all and the all of ice-cream, do you?”

J: It's the best ice-cream, I wouldn't order any other.

N: Oh! So it's all chocolate for you, is it?

J: Yes, chocolate is all I need.

N: Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.

J: But that's not what we're talking about.

N: Ah! But that's what I'm talking about.

J: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...

N: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.

J: But you still didn't convince me.

N: It's that I'm not after you. I'm after them.

Writers can really have a lot of fun studying how logical fallacies work and how we can achieve greater mental clarity, more coherent thinking, rigour and confidence.


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What Are Fallacies Exactly?

According to Mother Wiki,

“a fallacy is the use of invalid or other faulty reasoning, or “wrong moves” in the construction of an argument.”

When writing, you articulate a series of arguments with systematic reasoning supporting your ideas, actions or theories. It’s a complex process, and it can inevitably lead to flawed reasoning or rhetorical mistakes. Well, many of these are considered logical fallacies.

The fascinating aspect of fallacious arguments is that, even if technically incorrect, they can be extremely persuasive. You encounter them in speeches, debates, articles, comments on social media, used both unintentionally, due to negligence or ignorance, and intentionally, to deceive or persuade.

[Final theory note: we divide fallacies into two types, formal and informal. A formal fallacy concerns the logical form of the reasoning, whereas an informal fallacy depends on the content of the reasoning and possibly on the purpose of the reasoning.]

Now, it’s time for some nice examples.

My Personal Favourite Fallacies

There are hundreds of fallacies. If you’re looking for a broad overview, I’d recommend looking at this reliable list by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Below-er my 7 personal favourites.

#1 - Argumentum Ad Hominem

It’s Latin for ‘to the person’ (‘directed at the person’), and it’s a fallacy that occurs when, instead of responding to your opponents’ arguments, you attack their personal characteristics in order to undermine those arguments.

Something like:

“Just look at that face, how could anyone vote for that?”

Someone’s face doesn’t and shouldn’t affect the ability to run a country and be voted into that office. This said, you must admit such a violent argument can heavily undermine a rival’s credibility in an open debate.

Merely attacking someone’s character is not an example of an ad hominem fallacy: an insult is not a fallacy. It only becomes so when the insult is intended to undermine the opponent's argument.

  • Insult: “You’re bloody fat!”

  • Ad hominem: “You’re bloody fat. Don't you dare to argue public health with me!”

Now, sharing some classic Trump examples would be waaay too easy at this point (enjoy).

#2 - Straw Man

This fallacy occurs when someone takes an argument and misrepresents it so that it’s easier to attack. It is an informal fallacy since its logical invalidity occurs because of the content of the argument (not the structure).

Jim: Sunny days are good!

Sally: If it never rained we’d all starve to death, Jim. Is it this that you want?

Sally misrepresentation of Jim’s argument allows her to attack it. She implicitly accuses him of always wanting the sun in order to have an easy argument to defeat him.

Let’s see another one:

Me: As you know, I wrote this newsletter about logical fallacies and…

Interviewer: And…you feel manipulative, don't you? What would happen if everyone became manipulative? Do you want everyone to use logical fallacies? That would be a disaster!

The interviewer accuses me of wanting everyone to be manipulative and then proceeds to attack this invented/false position (the straw man) to undermine my credibility and my humble newsletter.

#3 - Appeal To Ignorance

Originally named ‘Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam’, it occurs any time ignorance is used as a major premise in support of an argument. We encounter it very often.

“No one has ever seen an extraterrestrial and proved its existence, so they must not exist at all.”

Appealing to ignorance is such a poor way of reasoning that it supports multiple contradictory conclusions at the same time:

“No one has ever proved extraterrestrials don’t exist, so they must be real.”

What is really certain here is that ignorance can’t prove anything except that you don’t know something. In other words, appealing to ignorance conveys no knowledge.

#4 - Black-Or-White Fallacy

false dilemma fallacy’ that unfairly limits to only two choices as if you had to choose between black or white — is a big classic!

Dear reader, at this point you either love what I am telling you or you hate it: which is it?

Such a claim makes you choose between two options. However, you might also think my newsletter is ok, or just interesting but not to fall in love with. There are not only two options; there is no black or white.

This fallacy can subtly undermine your arguments’ validity when approaching complex topics and without making a mark.

Writers tend to fall here: it’s easier to consider only two options when things become complex. Our brain likes to simplify the world in this way.

There are two types of writers in the world: those who make this mistake and those who don’t!

Ok, I’m not helpful: this last one wasn’t a black-or-white fallacy. In fact, it’s true writers do or do not commit such a mistake (I’m not unreasonably restricting the cases to two). See the difference?

#5 - Tu Quoque Fallacy

So annoying!

Also called ‘appealing to hypocrisy’, it distracts from the argument by pointing out the opponent’s hypocrisy.

“Dad, I know you smoked when you were my age, so how can you tell me not to do that?”

This fallacy typically deflects criticism away from ourselves by accusing others of the same. But even hypocrites can have valid arguments.

Let me explain: if your partner says, ‘maybe I left the wardrobe a mess, but you never make the bed’, they’re trying to diminish their responsibility or defend their action by distributing blame with you. But someone else’s fault does not justify their own fault. See? This fallacy is basically an attempt to divert blame distracting from the initial problem.

Mind that it’s not a fallacy to ‘simply’ point out hypocrisy where it occurs. Imagine if they’d have said, ‘yes, I left the wardrobe a mess. I’m responsible for that, and I’ll make some space for your clothes. Anyway, you’re a mess too. We should try to reorder the entire flat’.

In this case, they weren’t defending their position or justifying a behaviour but admitting their part within a larger problem. They pictured you as a hypocrite, yes, but not to win the argument.

So, here’s the difference: the tu quoque only occurs when an arguer uses some apparent hypocrisy to neutralize criticism and distract from the issue.

#6 - Appeal To Authority

Originally named ‘Argumentum ad Verecundiam’, this fallacy may be hard to spot as it is generally a good and responsible thing to cite relevant authorities in support of our arguments. Much of our knowledge comes from authorities in different fields.

So, appealing to authority occurs when you misuse an authority, like when, for example:

  • the authority is not actually an authority in the relevant subject;

  • the authority cannot be trusted to tell the truth;

  • different authorities disagree on the subject;

  • you misquote the authority.

“John the butcher told me his cousin is a doctor. Well, his cousin says that coronavirus comes from copulating bats and rats. Precisely, those living close to 5G antennas around Bill Gates’s cottage in China.”

Excessive, but you got the idea.

On the other side, claims such as ‘stop talking about what scientists say, that’s an argument from authority!’ make no sense (as pointed out in this video). When there’s scientific consensus about something, it means there are proofs to sustain and justify that consensus.

The difficulty here lies in the fact that to spot a fallacious ‘appeal to authority’, you’re often required to hold some background knowledge about the subject or the specific authority: ignorance is what makes this fallacy possible.

[Extra thought: it makes sense not to rely excessively on authorities as they can sometimes be wrong. The science experts in the 16th century thought the Earth was the centre of the solar system. It turns out they were wrong. It’s a wise attitude to treat authorities as helpful guides. Just a fair share of scepticism, you know? But listen to what they say, please.]

#7 - Red Herring Fallacy

The dialogue I’ve quoted at the beginning of today’s newsletter is a fine example of a red herring fallacy: a digression that takes the reasoner off the path of considering only relevant information.

In the argument above, Joey and Nick were defending their positions, respectively, chocolate and vanilla. But at some point, Nick digressed:

“Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.”

Nick teaches young Joey a lesson: in debates, the audience doesn’t necessarily like those who are right; it often supports those who seem to win the argument instead, even when there’s no argument at all.

Joey: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...

Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.

Joey: But you still didn't convince me.

Nick: It's that I'm not after you. I'm after them.

See you next Wednesday,

Lorenzo Di Brino